What is the importance of engaging students in talk in the science class?

Posted on July 6th, 2011

Sam Spiegel is a former Fellow at the Institute for Learning and chair of the Disciplinary Literacy science team. In this video he discusses why student talk is important in the science classroom.

[Video Transcript] Why engage students in talk in the science class, particularly at the secondary level. What’s the importance around talk?

Let's take for example a simple question like, is fire living. How might you answer that? Some of you may have thought of those old things we used to memorize about what are the principles or factors of life. OK, so it moves, it reproduces. Some of you may be able to recall three, five, seven different characteristics of life. But do you really understand what life is? That's where we want to get kids going.

What would be involved in the thoughts behind you preparing to talk about it and then what might come out as far as exposing your thinking or other people's thinking around it? What misconceptions might emerge? As a teacher, then, that gives me a rich opportunity to identify those potential misconceptions and think about ways of how we need to adjust instruction to match that.

Additionally, that process of thinking about the talk, beginning to talk about it, questioning what others are saying, that starts to move me into those practices that were genuine in science. That apprenticing of science where now I'm wondering about natural phenomena. I'm really thinking about it. I’m questioning others about it. I'm pushing their thinking. And that process is part of where we want to move students into. We want to get that cognitive wrestling, engaging them in the process.

The other part of getting students talking is that it engages them and makes them take some ownership of their own learning.

The learning emulates what we see happened in national science labs. When I was director of education at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, I had the unique opportunity of working with several Nobel laureates, leaders in the science field. One of the things that always jumped out at me is not so much what happened in the research labs, it was what happened in the hallways. You’d hear the chemist talking to the physicist. They'd start talking about phenomena. They'd start wondering with each other. Somebody’d say, "Well how do you know that?" The same kind of things we should hear from the kids. It’s exciting when you go into a classroom and you see one kid turn to another about rich science data and say, How do we know that that's happening? What if we try this? Where does this lead to? Didn’t we do something like this last year and how does this fit with that?

When we look at some of the research that’s out there related to talk, a lot of it points to the idea of this notion of argumentation in science. Can we get students to not just deal with information and facts but can they use genuine data, think about phenomena and develop a rich argument around it that’s based on that evidence?

There are some recent studies that came out of England where students who engaged in rich academic talk in science saw not only significant gains in their science content. We saw it in their language arts and their math.

One of the challenges we have, particularly with secondary science is we really need to get kids engaged and excited about science. As a nation, we are no longer recruiting people into the sciences and engineering the way we used to. And this is not just a problem with students identified as struggling but even with the high performing students. We are not exciting them about science any more. And so one of the things we need to look for is how do we engage all students in genuine ways to really advance their thinking about science, but also that excitement, that flair?

Sam Spiegel

Sam Spiegel is a former Fellow at the Institute for Learning and chair of the Disciplinary Literacy science team. In this video he discusses why student talk is important in the science classroom.